I should come right out and say I don’t know much about Roblox at all, even if it’s one of the most popular game platforms in the world. But then I’m not really in its target demographic of kids under 16. From what I’ve gleaned, it has easy-to-learn tools that allows anyone to make a game, whether that’s something of the very basic, derivative, and janky kind, or something approaching professional quality. I’m also aware of People Make Games’ investigations into the platform’s questionable and exploitative practices, that’s enough to convince me I shouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.
On the other hand, I do like Sonic the Hedgehog. So when a new game launches on Roblox that’s not only starring the Blue Blur and friends but is officially licensed by Sega, then that’s more than enough to raise some cautious curiosity, especially when said platform is free and accessible to anyone with a smartphone or web browser. Roblox may already be home to various other Sonic fan games, but besides being an official release, Sonic Speed Simulator is also the work of Gamefam, the first professional company to treat Roblox as a proper game development platform. The developer is also no stranger to partnerships, having collaborated with Mattel to create an open-world racing game based on Hot Wheels in 2020.
It might be a stretch to call Sonic Speed Simulator a game when it’s more of a tribute – and an experiment that teases the potential of the kind of ‘open zone’ 3D gameplay Sonic Team is currently working on with the upcoming Sonic Frontiers. It actually reminds me of ‘Sonic World’, which featured as part of compilation Sonic Jam for the Sega Saturn. That was also not really a game but rather a small 3D environment featuring a low-poly Sonic and Tails that doubled as an interactive museum, a sort-of proof-of-concept for Sonic in 3D leading up to Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast.
To its credit, Sonic Speed Simulator is a bit more than that. It’s not just one world but multiple, featuring mechanics that the hedgehog has used in his 3D outings such as the homing spin attack or grinding on rails. You’re also not being funnelled through linear routes like many of the mainline 3D games; instead these environments are spacious enough to handle your blistering speed from any direction.
It could, however, have made a stronger first impression, as it begins by living up to neither of the two selling points in the title. You don’t start as Sonic but rather your Roblox avatar (I’m sure long-term Roblox users may be attached to their own avatars with all sorts of customisable cosmetics, but this isn’t what I’ve signed up for), and you’re at a crawling pace that steadily increases as you level up. Levelling up is essentially the core loop, with XP earned simply by moving (while the UI mentions ‘steps’, this counter continues going up even if you make a long jump) but also by collecting crystals, which make the same chime as the pearls in Sonic and the Secret Rings, rising in pitch when you can collect a long trail of them. Bigger XP bonuses come by way of jumping through hoops placed around the world, many set up so that you need to be at a certain level and speed in order to reach them, the same for being able to find and pick up the unlocks for Sonic, Tails, and the just recently added Knuckles as playable characters, though bear in mind that they’re just skins so control exactly the same.
Suffice to say that once you lose the avatar and are at a comfortable enough speed that you can easily run a loop-de-loop, then Sonic Speed Simulator starts to feel like a Sonic game, and a surprisingly good one at that. Naturally, that bar is rather low, given the many misfires Sonic Team have had with its tentpole mascot over the past couple decades – and having taken the misguided decision to dig into these very recently, I should know. It’s not just the surprise of ‘here’s a 3D Sonic game that’s not broken’, though. It’s a game that nails the simple joy of being Sonic, running super fast under blue Sega skies or bouncing between springs across bright green zones (there’s also currently a desert-themed and snow-themed world, but let’s be honest, Green Hill and Emerald Hill are the standouts for hitting the nostalgia factor).
Once you’re fast enough to get the lay of the land within an hour, mind, it does quickly run out of steam, as there’s not a whole lot else to do – at least nothing that’s anything as compelling. You can jump into obbys (Roblox parlance for obstacle courses), but they generally consist of very rudimentary platforming challenges that expose the speedster’s weakness with navigating platforms in tight spaces – and some are mandatory in order to unlock the next world, anyway.
…the logic of progression or goals is a moot point when the actual traversal does feel good, certainly a damn sight better than Sonic’s lowest points in history…
There’s also a constantly visible timer alerting you to races you can compete in with other players, but this is an event that’s literally the same straight line that’s done in about 20 seconds. It’s pointless to enter if you’re low-level but also far too laggy to even know if you’re ahead of your competitors, and mostly an excuse to shoe-horn in some engagement for this ‘metaverse’, including chatting with other players racing around the world or spending your rings in gacha-style vending machines on cosmetics like chaos. You’ll also find a stall selling Sonic-themed hats for your avatar using the platform’s premium currency of Robux.
Granted, it appears Gamefam are working on updating the game regularly, with at least one more world still to come. It’s just that the progression is incredibly underwhelming, where getting further requires starting over. Basically, when you reach your maximum level (Level 50 to start with) you’re given the option for Rebirth, resetting you back to level 1, which also means you’re back at crawling speed, although you still retain all unlocked cosmetics. A generation growing up on Fortnite where you always start with nothing is probably fine with this, and at least levelling up is quicker with each subsequent rebirth, yet I still can’t get over how Sonic is having his core appeal neutered each time. Each rebirth does at least raise your next maximum level, making you go even faster, though a cynic may see that as just dragging out the grind, since later worlds only unlock after rebirth – egregiously, where the third world requires one rebirth, the fourth requires you to have had three.
That said, the logic of progression or goals is a moot point when the actual traversal does feel good – certainly a damn sight better than Sonic’s lowest points in history – and the grind almost disappears as minutes go by and I realise I’m just enjoying running for the pure sake of running. It’s probably the most polished experience to have graced Roblox so far, an easy gateway drug to tempt newcomers to the platform. For Sonic fans, it’s a glimpse at what could be possible with the hedgehog’s future, if this is what Sonic Team’s ‘open zone’ design is going for, albeit with more structure and actual challenges. And besides, it’s free – surely it can’t hurt to give it a spin?